How I Recovered from Brain Damage

Lena Katz
How I Recovered from Brain Damage

My name is Jenna Phillips. I was born and raised in California. I spent my earliest years in the ski town of Bear Valley, but by high school we'd moved to the little seaside town of Carmel. I had a very typical California upbringing: cut school a lot, hung out with my friends at the beach, ran around eating fast food, drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes ... not appreciating the beautiful place where I lived or how fortunate I was just to be me.

Halfway through my senior year in high school, I was getting ready to have a huge party in my barn after Winter Ball. My friends and I were in the hay loft, decorating and messing around. I was hanging a sheet and not paying attention as I walked backward. I then passed through the hole in the loft ceiling, fell 14 feet backward, landed on my head and went into a coma.

Recovering My Identity

As soon as my head hit the ground, I was knocked unconscious. There were about 10 witnesses — all of my friends who had been helping me get ready for the party — but nobody knew what to do. My sister went running and got my mom, who rushed to my side and put her hands around my head, making sure I wasn't moved. Somebody called 911, and the ambulance got to my house very quickly. The paramedics put a neck brace around me; they were very cautious about moving me, because no one knew what my injuries were. Of course, I can tell you all this because I was told later — at the time it happened, I was fully unconscious.

The paramedics and doctors had no idea what to expect. After a fall like that, I could have been dead, or broken my back and be quadriplegic, or I might never regain consciousness. The doctors were amazed that I didn't die, and didn't break my neck. It surprised everyone when I woke up a day later. I was incredibly lucky: the only thing I broke in that fall was my big left toenail. (And it will never be the same again ...)

Meanwhile, the head injuries I had were two brain contusions — those are bruises on the brain — and a fracture on the right side of my skull. And when I regained consciousness, I had brain damage. I had no short-term memory, no sense of direction, and no concept of time. I couldn't carry on a conversation. In the beginning, I could barely even talk. I felt like I had duct tape over my mouth, and all these feelings and emotions inside my head that could not be put into words.

It was crazy how much support I had from my friends, family and the community. It was standing-room only in my hospital room. People I didn't even consider friends would ditch their classes in the middle of the day and come see me. My mom was constantly by my side, doing everything for me, and a couple of my girlfriends would come over regularly for weeks after the accident, and help her around the house. Although everyone understood that it was going to take time for me to come back, my family was devastated by the changes they saw the first few weeks after I woke up from my coma.

The first movie we saw after I got out of the hospital was "Green Mile," and I actually remember trying to watch it and then being like, "I friggin' hate this movie; it doesn't make any sense." I actually walked out and went back to my room, with my mom and my little sister looking after me like "Oh Jenna...." Because, as I realized when I saw it again later, it's actually a beautiful movie with an amazing story. I just wasn't able to understand it.

I had just started dating my boyfriend a month before the accident. He lived about 500 miles away in San Diego. Can you imagine what it was like for him? We'd just started dating, and all of a sudden he hears that I had this horrible accident. He was freaking out. He told me later that immediately afterward, he would call me and I would keep saying "I fell, I fell..." over and over, and he would say, "I know." And a minute later, I'd say, "I fell ..." This vivacious full-of-life girl he fell in love with was suddenly like a stammering 5-year-old.

I still only remember what I call "slides of time" from the year after the accident. If regular memory is like a movie, I remember that year in pictures. One of my strongest memories is sitting there hearing my doctors — neurosurgeons, head trauma specialists, brain doctors whose fancy titles I don't know -- tell my parents that I probably shouldn't go back to high school because it would be too challenging for me to finish. I had one semester of high school left... And I remember thinking "Are you friggin' kidding me? I'm not going to accept that; it would be giving up." But I didn't say a word at the time.

I went back to school as soon as I could: only three weeks after the accident. Before, I never really cared about school. I was ditching all the time. After, I didn't miss a day of the rest of senior year, and I worked my butt off. At the same time, I was undergoing intense cognitive therapy four times a week after school. The therapist would give me a page with 20 scrambled words, and I had to unscramble them all and spell them right. When I started off I'd get all four-letter words like "PKAR," and I would sit there and look at the page like, "Whaaaat?" I couldn't even work out that it should be "PARK" — a kindergarten-level exercise. I was very timid about trying to put all my thoughts and emotions into words and complete sentences. I would say something and then wonder, "Did that make any sense? What did I just say?" And sometimes I would be making sense, but I would doubt myself anyway.

Through my whole life, my strength was communication and writing, understanding words and knowing how to express myself with them. I was editor-in-chief of the yearbook at school. I had always thought I would be a writer. It was just part of my makeup. So it was really rough emotionally, looking at these pieces of paper, and knowing that the exercises shouldn't be hard, and that I should have the ability to do them, but not being able to figure it out. I was so frustrated and confused on the inside. Self- expression, communication, creativity — all my former strengths, became my weaknesses.

My friends and schoolmates and teachers were really sad. They saw such a drastic change in me: I had been this eloquent, creative person who was constantly getting acclaim for my abilities, and all of a sudden that was gone, ripped away from me. I had the vocabulary of a kindergartener. None of my friends or family ever said anything to make me feel bad about my condition, but I just remember the looks on their faces, when I would say words that didn't exist or scramble a sentence or something: Oh poor Jenna, she'll never be able to come back, she'll never regain her vocabulary, she'll never be the same.

I was the only person who knew it wasn't permanent. It could have been, though, if I would have accepted the doctor's prognosis, and hadn't been so adamant about doing the exercises to recondition my brain. But from the time I was born, I always wanted to do things my way. When I was five I wanted to tie my own shoes, dress myself, prepare my own food. I didn't want any help. One of the great stories of when I was a little girl is, my aunt was standing in the hallway and I stopped right in front of her, put my hands on my hips, and said "Get out of my way, it's my way." Not my hallway, but my way. And that is very much in keeping with what I thought when the doctors gave me the prognosis. I thought "Get out of my way, you're not helping me, you're keeping me down." I saw them as a roadblock on my path. Even though I couldn't verbalize it even as well as I could when I was five, I still was the same person in my head.

I don't even remember how I progressed from the four-letter words up to my own grade level. I had zero short-term memory at the beginning, and it took me a couple months to feel normal again. To feel comfortable communicating with people. But I just kept working at it. The brain is a muscle; you have to exercise it. For the first time in my life, I really had to work. I was a smart kid, so school up till that point hadn't been challenging, and I'd passed classes without putting any effort into it. During recovery, for the first time I really had to try hard, in a way I never had before. It was very humbling. I learned how to apply myself. It was my first introduction to mind-body connection, because my physical symptoms were healing faster than anyone realized they would. I remember sitting in school--we were doing some sort of exercise in my regular English class, and I felt something going on in my brain. A physical sensation, like it was actually moving. I don't know whether it was the swelling going down or what, but it was the weirdest feeling.

By the time the final semester of high school arrived, I felt more confident and capable in communicating with people. I went to Senior Prom with my boyfriend. And I finished high school and graduated with a 3.6 GPA in the final semester. That was the highest GPA I'd ever had. The doctors were beside themselves that I bounced back so quickly.They'd been the ones who doubted me the most, and expressed it the loudest. I don't even remember going in to see them. But I do remember going to my therapist. She was asking me to do all these different exercises, and I could do all of them. She asked me all these questions, and I could answer all of them. She said something to the effect of "My work is done here."

But my work actually wasn't done. After graduation I still didn't feel comfortable doing a lot of things on my own, and I wasn't quite ready to go to college yet. I ended up working for my mom at her art gallery, doing admin stuff. My boyfriend had continued to come up from San Diego regularly, and after graduation he moved into my parents' house and worked for my family. It was important to me to have him there. We wound up moving to Washington state for a few months. Even then I wasn't completely recovered mentally. I had a bad short-term memory. I couldn't be on my own. I was living with my boyfriend and his brother in Washington, which was perfect for a little while because I was surrounded by people all the time. But I was really craving school — I wanted to learn stuff. So I moved back to my mom's house and took classes at the community college in Monterey. That marked the end of my three-year relationship with my high school boyfriend...though we did have a huge falling out, we've reconnected recently, and are on good terms.

Awakening to a New Me
Over the years after the accident, I realized a lot about life and myself. I learned how to listen to my body, and understand what it needs. I also learned how to persevere, and that with perseverance, anything is possible. These guiding principles would help me through future challenges, including a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis, and a subsequent 30-pound weight gain and struggle with insulin management. The same mind-body connection that powered my recovery from brain damage would help me to overcome physical challenges and chronic disease. I wound up majoring in nutrition in college, and also becoming a certified Pilates instructor.

Today I live in Los Angeles, where I own my own business called Mission Possible. The most simplistic description is, it's an outdoor fitness program. But it's a lot more than that. I call it a lifestyle. It incorporates an active lifestyle, efficient exercise, conscious eating, finding balance, and overall mind-body well-being. People who train with me don't just show up casually in my classes. They become regulars and plan their schedules so they don't have to miss a Mission. They come with me to my favorite restaurants, or they text me from where they're eating and ask, "What should I order?" It's almost like they adopt my lifestyle. And I'm always excited to share the information.

A few months ago, a nonprofit organization called Nourish the Children asked me to be their ambassador. Their main task right now is to bring nutrient-dense meals over to impoverished villages in Malawi. They said, "Jenna, you are a beacon of health and wellness, so who better than you to do this?" I've been raising money and awareness through my Website, as well as through Facebook and Twitter. On May 30th I went to Malawi to distribute food, with a small group of people from Nourish the Children, and I video taped the entire trip and posted it to my YouTube channel. It was one of the more amazing experiences in a life that's already included my fair share of experiences, good and bad.

Truly, the entire experience with brain damage helped me find my true path, which is to motivate and inspire other people. I had a lot of time to think about things during my recovery, and I knew I was being given a second chance at life. I went from being a typical "It's all about me" teenager, to finding my purpose, which is to help others. My story became a tool to inspire. I share it to let other people know, you can overcome anything ... no matter what.

 This essay was  told to Lena Katz by Jenna Phillips.Learn more about her Jenna Phillips’ Mission Possible projects.

This story was originally published on, AOL. Used with permission.

Posted on BrainLine October 6, 2010.

Comments (5)

Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

I had fallen ill, passed out and hit my head 11 months ago. I was treated for food poison and heat exhaustion. I recently went back to the doctor and I'm being treated for TBI. I feel like I've been living in a fog for a year and have a hard time remembering things (names of people, items, etc.). It takes me a few seconds to remember, but I eventually get it out. I've been listening to audio books and I teach a class and can stick with it, but life just seems hard for me right now. Hard to cope and I get exhausted easily. This article gives me hope that I wont always be like this.

Thank you for sharing the story of your life. I find myself reaching for others like myself that have had a TBI and lived to discover a new self they never new existed. Congratulations on your new self worth.

I was walking home from work and a car hit and ran me. I received traumatic brain injury. I am working on being the best me I can be. Could use some tips Jenna let me know

Cool inspirational story! Good luck in your future endeavours.

Great story Jenna, really giving me hope had a sort of brain injury ,have improved to some extent , sometimes wonder how I'm coming across ,anyway... I can see it's possible to get better thanks to you